Stranger in These Parts After Action Report: Did We Learn Anything?

(crossposted at Play the Past)

There are things you can do, and can’t do, to undergraduate students, I’ve discovered. Recently heard in class:

Math? You want us to do math? But… but… we’re history students!

This of course is my continuing digital antiquity class, ‘Cities and Countryside in the Ancient World’. I have them playing right now with maps and spatial data, trying to do some basic spatial analysis. Earlier in the year, to accustom folks to trying to think about ancient spaces with a suitably ancient mindset, I had the students do some readings, play ‘Stranger in These Parts‘ interactive fiction, and then explore the same territory using the ORBIS simulation of geographic space.

I had broken this assignment into three pieces. The first was a basic seminar discussion of the two articles, R. Ling’s 1990 article, Stranger in Town,  and Tim Ingold’s Temporality of Landscape. Then, play the IF. I ask the students to pay close attention as they played to the way they moved through the game, the things that were easy to do, the things that were difficult to do, and to reflect on their ignorance of the world as they played. The next week, ORBIS. After a few panicky emails, I sent around an email which read in part,

Look at the course objectives. Read Ingold and Ling from week 1. Play through the interactive fiction, paying attention to how you navigate space, and how space is represented. Play with Orbis, looking at the ways the connectivity of places – or the perception of closeness/farness – can change with the seasons, the mode of travel and so on (and note that mode of travel will correlate often with social class!). Reflect on all of this. How is space socially constructed?

Now, I had modeled in class how to interact with both the game and the simulation. I figured this would be a bit of an easy way into some of the more substantive issues of the course. I should’ve known better. This is what happened next. It sounded a bit like this:

Play a game? A game? But… but… we’re history students! We don’t know what you want us to write!

There was great resistance to the idea that playing the game could have some sort of valid pedagogical outcome, which came down to a very instrumental view of what education is about. Write the standard historical essay. Write the midterm. Write the final. Get grade. Repeat. The sheer fear of doing something other than writing a research essay meant that I had to throw my lesson plans out the window. To calm nerves, we had to play the game together, as a class, me running the computer, them suggesting things to try. By turning it into a collaborative game, it seemed to take some of the danger away – what if I play the game wrong? Students still had to write their own reflection pieces, but I discovered that I couldn’t push them to do the playing on their own, at least at first.

So was it worthwhile? The best results looked similar to what student A wrote:

[…]The ‘PlayFic’ interactive fiction (Graham: 2012) further emphasizes the fragmentary nature of travel and reminds the reader of the social interactions that would have been necessary for the ancient traveller in order to properly find their way amidst an absence of public transport, urban or international, and of regular signposting. This immersive fiction gives a practical experience of ancient travel and space to modern readers, and also attempts to impart the sense of noise, movement and business of cities and urban hubs. Far from the neat remove of ‘Orbis’, the IF conveys the messiness and overwhelming frustration of packed city-living and uncertain directionality in travel. No clear route may be chosen, but must instead be gleaned through socializing with others. Directions are had on an ad hoc basis. Travel on foot or by ox-cart are cross-over option features in both ‘Orbis’’ and ‘PlayFic’s’ journeys, highlighting popular means of transit in antiquity.

Ingold’s article, ‘The Temporality of Landscape’ (1993) gives a philosophical explanation between the concepts of landscape and environment, cityscape and taskscape, seeking to intelligize cityscape and landmarks through cultural/temporal perception. At the same time, Ingold echoes the blueprint for ancient travel as laid out in ‘Orbis’ and the IF: “In the landscape, the distance between two places, A and B, is experienced as a journey made, a bodily movement from one place to the other, and the gradually changing vistas along the route” (Ingold, 154:1993). As well, the connective importance of networks and crossed pathways is given consideration: “…the landscape is the world as it is known to those who dwell therein,  who inhabit its places and journey along the paths connecting them” (Ingold, 156:1993).

And sometimes, people got very much into the details. B, who was concerned more with ORBIS than the Interactive Fiction, wrote:

[…]The Roman world in the first half of the fifth century A.D. was plagued with invasions both before and during the reign of Attila the Hun, the scourge of God. The greatest problem that the Romans had with the Huns was that, even when they were not organized under Attila, they moved so quickly, in a time when long range communication moved only as fast as a messenger on a horse, that The Romans could not respond quickly enough. By the time they arrived, the Huns had already sacked and burned the countryside after simply riding past all Roman fortified locations. In the year 443, the Huns sacked the city of Philippopolis and Margus faster than the Romans could respond. If we use ORBIS, and place in the start city of, say, Apulum which is well into Hunnic territory in the 5th century, and place the destination in ORBIS as Philippopolis and place the speed at which the Huns would’ve ridden, ‘horse relay’, we can get an approximate duration of travel; in this case, 2.6 days in the month of July on the fastest route possible. Also, ORBIS shows the route taken by means of primary roads; this is also important because the Huns, who would’ve known very little of Roman Geography, would just have followed the roads straight from Apulum to Philippopolis. If we assume that a messanger from Philippopolis races to Constantinople on ‘horse relay’, it would take him 1.7 days to get there and then another 7.1 days for the army to March immediately from there to Philippopolis in order to save the city. Thus it would take approximately 9 days in order for the Romans to support the semi-defenseless city!

So did we learn anything? The majority of students came away with at least an idea that how we imagine space is at least as important as how space actually lays out, geographically speaking. The best students did what A & B did here, making far deeper connections. I certainly learned that the only way I’m going to get any traction for my playful approaches to history in these parts is to break everything into very small pieces, and to do as much of it collaboratively, in class room time, as possible. I need to ‘flip’ my classroom, leaving lectures to video and the hands-on stuff when I’m right there to guide, to reassure, to cajole, and to encourage.

It’s sad, in a way, that we as educators have beaten so much of the playfulness out of students that when encouraged to go play, the first instinct is to run back to the box.